I had my first taste of casual racism, US-style, this morning. A nice old man at the counter of my new favourite hipster cafe had been asking me why I was in America, in the open, friendly way that people do here. He finished the conversation with “well, it’s good to see some pale-skinned immigrants, anyway.”

The barista and I both responded by looking awkwardly at the floor, but there it was. An explicit version of what’s bubbling under the surface of the current debate around immigration reform.

This was in Long Beach, CA. You’d think everybody would be used to difference in southern California by now, especially the old-timers. Everything — from the place names to the food to the Spanish-language highway billboards — points to a shared history which includes Latinos as protagonists.

The state now hosts roughly even numbers of what the federal government calls “Hispanics” and “non-Hispanic whites”. But as of next year, for the first time since its foundation in 1850 at the conclusion of a shabby imperial war against former owner Mexico, it will have a Latino plurality. By 2060 Hispanics in California will be 48% of the population, while other groups will have declined proportionally.

The current immigration debate is not explicitly about settled Latino citizens, but the poorly-protected non-citizens — many, though not all of whom, originated in Mexico — who are estimated to number 11 million souls in the United States. (If nothing else, these are all numbers which should put the Australian debate around multiculturalism and immigration into perspective). The US President Barack Obama’s speech last week pointed out that often such people been here long enough to have children, pay taxes and join communities. But they can’t join the formal economy for fear of deportation or worse, and they have no rights of citizenship.

Many Latino voters thus have friends and neighbours who are permanent unpersons. And many also see a reluctance to recognise these immigrants as being bound up with a hostility to their own identity. Their feelings was evident in the way in which their electoral muscle was employed in last year’s presidential election.

“From the perspective of Californian farmers, the sooner that immigrant-friendly reform happens the better.”

Republicans are caught between changing demographics and the more or less frank hostility to ethnic difference among their existing base. Content to exploit and promote xenophobia for decades, Republicans now find themselves with a too-small national electoral coalition and no pitch for Latinos. Mitt Romney’s poor compromise was to work towards “self-deportation” — imitating state-based efforts to make the lives of illegal immigrants so unpleasant that they voluntarily leave the country. Like other elements of his program, this satisfied nobody — neither otherwise-conservative Hispanics, nor parts of the base wanting a crackdown on those they see both as undeserving recipients of public largesse and economic competitors.

Part of the context for this debate is increasingly nasty treatment of illegal immigrants in some white majority communities — not only those for which Latino migration is new, but places on the now less-permeable border with Mexico, like Arizona. Every Republican-controlled jurisdiction that cracks down on illegals makes the GOP’s national job harder.

The “they took our jobs” paranoia underlying these measures belies the fact that without “illegals” labour, some US industries grind to a halt. California’s own farms, for example, have become dependent on undocumented migrants. Half of the country’s farmworkers are illegals, mostly from Mexico. California grows half of America’s fruit and vegetables, but a dwindling labour supply due to tightened borders and the new prosperity of Mexican farms have led to a shift to less labour-intensive crops. As the LA Times reported last week, almonds have become a much more important crop in this state largely because they need fewer bodies in the fields at harvest time.

From the perspective of Californian farmers, the sooner that immigrant-friendly reform happens the better. It remains to be seen whether the farm sector will be willing to pay the higher wages of citizen migrants, or whether they will be able to take advantage of a guest worker program, a currently disputed part of the proposed reforms.

The current proposal before the Senate creates a pathway to citizenship for adults, complementing The DREAM Act — which for a decade has allowed the children of illegal immigrants to become Americans. Republicans have accepted this for current migrants while avoiding trigger words like “amnesty”, and insisting that measures be taken to stop more immigrants entering the country.

This ongoing attempt to seal the border dramatises the biggest question hanging over relations between the West and the global south, and one Australia is yet to satisfactorily answer: is it prudent, possible or right to try to forever stop the flow of people seeking a better life?

*Jason Wilson blogs at Restless Capital

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey